A little science is a dangerous thing

Using an electronic copy kindly sent my new Hump commenter MartinV, I’ve been looking at a recent book by John Schneider, The Darwinian Problem of Evil (it’s not released in UK until the end of the month).

I won’t do a review, but from the comprehensive Introduction I found it to be a summary of the kind of theodical problems and novel theological solutions against which I reacted at BioLogos several years ago. Although the new book postdates my own God’s Good Earth, I’d see mine as a response to his, rather than the reverse (and indeed, Schneider does not interact with my work).

Some of the arguments in The Darwinian Problem are answered by Josh Swamidass’s Genealogical Adam and Eve, and somewhat ironically by BioLogos‘s recent series of three positive reviews of that book. BioLogos‘s own editorial, and more strongly Thomas McCall’s review, both point out how the exclusion of an historical Adam and Eve on the basis of “consensus science” turned out to be, in BioLogos‘s words “premature,” which is another way of saying “wrong.” As regards Adam and Eve, at least, BioLogos seems to have accepted that the historical Christian view was not so scientifically absurd, after all.

Today I just want to draw attention to another small example of “premature science dictating theology,” in relation to Schneider’s fairly typical approach to the “evils of evolution.” In the Introduction, he uses the customary emotive terms like “cruel,” “agonising,” “horrors,” etc which I call out in Chapter 9 of GGE. Specifically he casts doubt on how a benevolent God could sanction the cataclysmic violence of the mass extinctions that mark evolutionary history.

Now, violent death in the animal realm has been observed directly since humans could observe anything at all. Pretty soon they were painting it in caves. And the traditional understanding of Noah’s Flood as a worldwide catastrophe appointed by God has been unproblematic, morally, to Jews and Christians down the ages. It is not clear to me what new problems evolution raises, other than the fact that mass-extinctions happened more than once, and that they served as opportunities for new suites of fauna to diversify.

In passing, let me note that Schneider’s solution improves on the “autonomous evolution” of those like Howard Van Till, in which God watches helplessly as a self-determined nature, like some adolescent tearaway, goes astray. But it falls short of the traditional conclusions of classical theism. Schneider proposes that God should not be seen as an “ordinary moral being,” in which he agrees with classical theism, but he goes on to speak of God using the genuinely evil evils of evolution to produce an eventual overall good. In an argument from aesthetics, he compares God to an artist who deliberately includes ugliness in his composition to make a worthwhile whole.

In sharp theological contrast, classical theism (exemplified as far back as Augustine) places the assessment of “natural evil” entirely in fallible human eyes: to Augustine and other ancient theologians, beauty is an objective truth (not a subjective judgement) arising from the goodness and wisdom of the creator, rather than from his tolerance of imperfection. So rather than saying that God tolerates evils in creation (leaving aside for now actual moral evil dependant on free wills), the classical theist would say that what seems evil to us arises from our ignorance of God’s goodness, truth and beauty as Creator. This, of course, accords with the biblical teaching that everything God has made is good (1 Tim 4:4), and that he is of purer eyes than to look on evil (Hab 1:13).

But to return to the matter in hand, the problem of mass extinctions is to Schneider that, as opposed to the sparrow individual falling to the ground, the whole biosphere is horrifically disrupted at a single, evil, stroke. The science tells us so, and so has posed a mighty problem for theodicy.

But here is a piece of research about what is believed to be the biggest mass extinction of all – the Permian-Triassic extinction. Science, in the shape of Wikipedia (!) shows that:

It is the Earth’s most severe known extinction event, with up to 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species becoming extinct. It was the largest known mass extinction of insects. Some 57% of all biological families and 83% of all genera became extinct.

But this research suggests that what appears in the rock as a Year Zero for life on earth was actually a long drawn-out transition, apparently involving multiple causes and affecting different parts of the world at different times:

New ages for fossilized vertebrates that lived just after the demise of the fauna that dominated the late Permian show that the ecosystem changes began hundreds of thousands of years earlier on land than in the sea, eventually resulting in the demise of up to 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species. The later marine extinction, in which nearly 95% of ocean species disappeared, may have occurred over the time span of tens of thousands of years.

Now granted, all those species became extinct eventually, and so all the members of them did indeed die. But since every animal that has ever lived has also died, that is scarcely a scientific bombshell. Over those kind of time scales, many of those extinctions probably happened as gently as any reduction of reproductive capacity seen in recent times. If we accept, for the sake of argument, the common view that giant pandas are just badly adapted, rather than purely a victim of human depradation of habitat, then their gradual decline before WWF got going would have led the species to die peacefully in bed. “Differential reproduction” is the mature scientific characterisation of natural selection: “red in tooth and claw” is just poetic polemic (in this case, by Alfred Lord Tennyson).

In Schneider’s book, one of the evils he laments is that many of these species never even got to leave any genetic descendants. Well, I’m sorry, but my dog, being neutered, is in the same position and shows no distress at all, especially at meal times or out on walk. Even in the human situation, I have five grandchildren, and my unmarried brother no descendants. And life for both of us goes on in ups and downs.

But those who’ve read Josh Swamidass’s Genealogical Adam and Eve will understand that even successful breeders eventually leave no genetic inheritance: most of our ancestors are “genetic ghosts” who have left us no genes, which means also that most of my distant descendants will inherit none of my genes. And genetics being what it is, any of my genes that do happen to survive will have mutated significantly. The animals are wise to feel no regrets about their great-great-grandchildren.

And so another scientific objection to orthodox Christian doctrine turns out to be more a question of our limited perspective, as well as our anthropocentric take on what it is right or wrong for God to do with his own creation.

It’s supposed to be a moral conundrum whether God does what is good because he is moral, or whether what he does is good by definition, whether moral or not. This is crazy talk, because there is no moral law apart from God, and morality is his gift to us, as creatures accountable only to him. The truth is that the two are simultaneouly true: What God does is good because he is good because he is God.

You might as well ask whether things only exist because God actually creates them, or whether we only think they exist because he is the Creator by definition.

But that kind of truth is only perceived by a faith that puts him at the centre of everything.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to A little science is a dangerous thing

  1. swamidass says:

    Great article. Btw, hoping to plug your book in the upcoming Sapientia series on the GAE.

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